The Scripturally Informed Conscience

The road from the Protestant Reformation to the religious freedom of the American republic was full of unexpected turns, switchbacks, and delays. The ambiguities, tensions, and paradoxes within church/state thought are seen starkly at the second Diet of Speyer in 1529—the event which birthed the term "Protestant."

The Diet, or gathering of German nobility, was convened by Charles V in an attempt to restore spiritual unity to a religiously divided empire. The "cease-fire" of the first Diet of Speyer three years earlier, which had essentially suspended or recessed the Edict of Worms and allowed Lutheranism to spread, was ended by the second Diet. The only sop given the forces of reform was the allowance that Lutheran services could continue within existing Lutheran states. Catholic services could also be held within Lutheran territories. But no Lutheran services could be held within Catholic states. Here, the Edict of Worms' ban on Luther's teachings would be strictly enforced. No further spread of Lutheranism would be allowed.

The princes in the Lutheran minority were unwilling to accept the limited toleration offered by the Diet. In language oft-quoted by Protestant historians, the minority princes declared "Let us reject this decree. . . . In matters of conscience the majority has no power." One influential Protestant historian asserted that "the principles contained in this celebrated Protest . . . constitute the very essence of Protestantism. . . . Protestantism sets the power of conscience above the magistrate and the authority of the Word of God above the visible church." Indeed, the very term "Protestant" originated from the protest lodged by the Lutheran princes at Speyer. Over the centuries both the event and the name have become associated with the ideas of the rights of conscience and religious freedom.

But these same Protestant historians often leave unmentioned another, darker side of the Diet of Speyer. The Diet, including the Lutheran princes, condemned the Anabaptist movement, and decreed that rebaptizers should be punished, even with death if recalcitrant and persistent in their errors. While nobly championing their own "rights" to conscience and religious freedom, the Lutheran princes were apparently blind to any inconsistency in their attitudes and actions in condemning and persecuting the Anabaptists. Thousands of Anabaptists died in the years following, at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants.

Protestant historians generally ignore this aspect of the Diet, and make little effort to explain the apparent contradictions it reveals. This incident can provide support both for those who view the Protestant Reformation as a continuation of medieval ideas, as well as for those who view it as the beginning of modern ideas. It certainly serves as a warning for anyone wishing to trace a simple, direct, and progressive story from the church/state ideas of the early reformers to the religious liberty and pluralism of the modern world.

But just because a story is more complex than we had thought does not mean that it is wrong or cannot be told. The fact that significant near-contemporaries of the events of Speyer viewed them as having such significance for issues of conscience and freedom as to coin the name for a movement and a historical epoch is some indication that the world was actually changing, and that the events at Speyer were part of that change. The Diet of Speyer did seem to represent some actual change in direction over previous views of church/state arrangement. At the very least, it introduced the rhetoric of religiously-based civil disobedience into public discourse.

But the apparent contradiction seen at Speyer may be better understood if we look closely at the balance and tension in the church/state thought of the theologian who had the greatest influence on the Lutheran nobles at Speyer—Martin Luther.

For good or for bad, much of Reformation thought was engaged in some way, either constructively or in opposition to, what Martin Luther said or wrote on any given topic. The world of church and state is no exception. The events at Speyer and its aftermath can be better understood, if not entirely explained, by looking at what Luther did and said on the topic.

This article, in its two parts, will examine the development of Luther's thought on church and state, focusing on the question of religious liberty. It will examine how his thought interacted with, reacted against, shaped, or was shaped by, his experiences with Catholics, Anabaptists, Reformed thinkers, and other Lutherans, especially Melanchthon. In closing, some observations will be made on the possible long-term influence of Luther's religious liberty thought on the formation of the American republic.

Church and State in the Medieval World
On the eve of the Reformation, while church and state were technically distinct entities, they were viewed as inseparable and organic parts of society as a whole. As one medieval authority has succinctly put it, "The identification of the church with the whole of organized society is the fundamental feature which distinguishes the Middle Ages from earlier and later periods of history." Yet the state was—under the theory of the two swords, civil and spiritual—meant to serve as the servant of the church in enforcing the church's religious rules and standards. Through the mechanism of infant baptism, virtually all citizens of the state were also citizens of the church. Church and state combined to oversee and enforce this contractual relationship, in all its civil and spiritual terms.

It was a system with tensions and conflicts, as the interests of church and state could and often did diverge. The pope and his bishops had enormous influence and persuasive powers, but they were limited by their inability to wield force directly. They were, on the whole, dependent on kings and princes loyal to the church to carry out their decrees and to enforce their edicts. But such cooperation was often ad hoc, intermittent, and inconsistent. Lacking the means of consistent coercion, the church had to resort to political and spiritual pressure to get civil rulers to act on its behalf. Its persuasive powers, however, were significant. The threat of excommunication or interdict persuaded many a civil ruler to often significant levels of cooperation with the church.

The tensions, limits, and powers of this system are clearly seen in the treatment of Luther at the Diet of Worms. Had the church had its way, there would have been no Diet at Worms. A papal bull had already condemned Luther's teachings and excommunicated him. All that was left was for the heretic to be arrested and consigned to the rack or the flames. But the Elector Frederick, Luther's patron, was unwilling to hand over his theologian without a formal hearing. He persuaded Emperor Charles V to hold a public hearing for Luther, and the Diet of Worms was convened in mid-April, 1521.

That the Diet met at all, then, was something of a defeat for Rome. It undercut the authority of the previous papal bulls against Luther. Still, it was a defeat that could yet end in the condemnation and execution of Luther—hardly a victory from the reformer's perspective. Indeed, events initially unfolded much as the pope would have hoped. Luther was quickly questioned about the authorship of his books, which were assumed heretical. There was no room for arguing this point. Rather, the question was whether Luther would recant and reject his teachings. After a short delay, Luther made his memorable defense: "My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other, here I stand, God help me. Amen."

Luther's statement was not exactly a modern conception of conscience as an individual, independent, and unfettered moral center. His conscience was bound and hemmed, but not by the pope or the church, as the medieval view would have it. Rather, his conscience was bound by the Word of God. But neither the emperor nor church leaders could conceive of a claim to conscience outside the dual sovereignty and oversight of the church and state. And the line the church drew around conscience with the spiritual sword, the state would enforce with the civil sword.

Thus, Charles V condemned Luther as an unrepentant heretic in the Edict of Worms and ordered his books and writings destroyed and his person arrested and turned over for appropriate punishment—execution. At last the papacy had the civil mandate and enforcement it had been seeking, or so it seemed. But Charles had left open a small sliver of daylight—a twenty-day delay on the enforcement of the Edict. Luther, aided by Elector Frederick, slipped through this narrow window into a productive hiding at Wartburg Castle.

The story of the Diet, with its second-guessing, yet ultimate affirmation, of papal condemnations, its responsiveness to papal requests and goals—but with just enough ambivalence and delay in execution of plans to let the condemned heretic slip free—illustrates well the cooperative, conflicted, ambivalent, politically charged relationship between the medieval church and state. The church claimed to be the superior authority. The superior sword of the state, however, made that claim often theoretical.

Cooperation, when it happened, was a mutually agreed upon affair. But one thing that both the medieval church and state consistently agreed upon was that the conscience of the individual citizen was subject to the oversight of the church and state acting together. As seen at Worms, Luther's new teachings challenged this allied hegemony over the scripturally informed conscience.

Luther on Church and State
Luther's ordeal at Worms took place about four years after the release of his ninety-five theses. In the interim, he had given significant thought to the relationship between the church and civil rulers. He had published one of his most significant works on the subject, the 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. There, he set down what he viewed as the proper role of the church in relation to the individual, Scripture, and society.
Luther believed that the church had wrongly erected three walls of privilege that prevented the correction of its continuing abuses.

The first wall was the assertion that spiritual authority was superior to that of civil. Thus the church was not subject to secular jurisdiction in many temporal matters. The second wall was that the Papacy alone had the right to authoritatively interpret Scripture. Therefore he could not be corrected by other persons. The third wall was that the pope alone could call councils. Thus the pope could effectively control the church, and prevent any appeal from his decisions to the body of the church

Luther attacked these walls by asserting the priesthood of believers.

"To call popes, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns the religious class, but princes, lords, artisans, and farm-workers the secular class, is a specious device invented by certain time-servers. . . . For all Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except insofar as they do different work. . . . The fact is that our baptism consecrates us all without exception, and makes us all priests. As St. Peter says, 'You are a royal priesthood and a realm of priests' [1 Pet. 2.9] and Revelation, 'Thou hast made us priests and kings by Thy blood.' [Rev. 5:9.]"

Luther believed that all Christians had an equal spiritual status, though they may fulfill different spiritual offices. But those selected for such offices, such as pastor or bishop, act merely on behalf of the congregation, all of whom have the same authority he does. He serves at the command and consent of the community, who can equally dismiss him from his office should they desire. This doctrine and its implications truly undercut all three walls of papal privilege. In the first instance, by putting all Christians on a similar plane, it nullified any appeal that the church hierarchy had to being above secular rulers and rules, who were exercising a Christian office of their own. Luther turned the dual sword of the medieval world into a single sword, and placed it firmly into the hand of the secular ruler. "Hence secular authorities should exercise their office freely and unhindered and without fear, whether it be pope, bishop, or priest with whom they are dealing; if a man is guilty let him pay the penalty. . . . For this is what St. Paul says to all Christians, 'Let every soul [I hold that includes the pope's] be subject to the higher powers, . . . for they bear not the sword in vain.' They serve God alone, punishing the evil and praising the good. [Rom. 13:1-4]."

Luther did not here fully explicate the duties of the state. He did make clear, though, that while the state had a spiritual office, its function and role were secular. "This government is spiritual in status, although it discharges a secular duty." In other words, in affirming that all people, including popes and priests, were subject to the civil sword, he was not in this argument giving the state authority or jurisdiction in spiritual matters. In his treatise Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed, written just three years later, he discussed this point more fully:

"Worldly government has laws which extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads and destroys the souls."

On this basis, he argued that Christians had no need to obey a civil ruler who commanded belief or the giving up of heretical books. "Heresy," he wrote, "can never be prevented by force. That must be taken hold of in a different way, and must be opposed and dealt with otherwise than with the sword. Here God's Word must strive."
While such a ruler should be disobeyed, Luther made clear that resistance or active opposition was not allowed the Christian.

The priesthood concept also toppled the second wall, once spiritual equality was established and the primacy of the papacy in interpreting Scripture was undercut. As Luther put it:
"Each and all of us are priests because we all have the one faith, the one gospel, one and the same sacrament; why then should we not be entitled to taste or test, and to judge what is right or wrong in the faith? How otherwise does St. Paul's dictum stand, 1 Corinthians 2:15, 'He that is spiritual judges all things and is judged by none,'. . . We ought to march boldly forward, and test everything the Romanists do or leave undone. We ought to apply that understanding of the Scriptures which we possess as believers, . . . Since God once spoke through an ass, why should He not come in our day and speak through a man of faith and even contradict the pope?"

Finally, of course, the priesthood of believers overturned the third wall as well, as under this concept the church lay in the body of believers rather than in some supreme head. The body had the right to gather and to correct those who served it, including the pope.

The overall effect of Luther's arguments regarding the priesthood of believers in the Address and his teachings in the Secular Authorities
was to turn the doctrine of the two swords into a model of the two kingdoms. According to Luther, all people are divided into two classes, "the first belong to the kingdom of God, the second to the kingdom of the world." Those in God's kingdom "need no secular sword or law," since they have in their "hearts the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and causes them to wrong no one." Non-Christians, on the other hand, are "subjected to the sword, so that, even though they would do so, they cannot practice their wickedness" in peace and prosperity.

Luther saw a clear distinction between these two kingdoms, and viewed Christ's kingdom as limited to His followers. "For this reason these two kingdoms must be sharply distinguished, and both be permitted to remain; the one to produce piety, the other to bring about external peace. . . . Christ's rule does not extend over all." Further, Christ's kingdom does not involve using the sword. "Christ did not wield the sword nor give it a place in His kingdom; for He is a King over Christians, and rules by His Holy Spirit alone, without law. . . . It is of no use in His kingdom."

In 1522 Luther showed that the commitments described above were more than mere words. Leaving his Wartburg sanctuary, Luther returned to Wittenberg to confront Karlstadt and others who were advocating the forcible removal of images and the overturning of the Mass. Luther agreed that the Mass was wrong, even sinful. But he "would not make it an ordinance for them, nor urge a general law." Such "forcing and commanding results in mere mockery, external show, a fool's play, man-made ordinances, sham-saints, and hypocrites." Rather than force, Luther would "preach it, teach it, write it," and allow God's Word to do the rest.

Events of the mid-1520s, however, caused Luther to begin to find different emphases within his views on church and state. The turmoil surrounding the peasant's revolt and the controversy surrounding the Anabaptists focused Luther's mind on the importance of respect for civil authority, as well as the civil implications of some ostensibly spiritual beliefs. To these events we will turn in Part II.

Nicholas Miller is an attorney and director of the Institute on Religious Freedom, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

1 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Pacific Press Publishing Assn.: Mountain View, Calif., 1911), p. 201.
2 J. H. Merle D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (American Tract Society: New York, 1854), p. 76.
3 Mark Greengrass, The Longman Companion to the European Reformation, C. 1500-1618 (London and New York: Longman Publishing Group, 1998), p. 104.
4 Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Penguin [Non-Classics], 2005), p. xviii. R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Penguin [Non-Classics], 1990), p. 16.
5 R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Penguin [Non-Classics], 1990), p. 16.
6 Ibid., p. 18.
7 Ibid., p. 19.
8 Ibid., pp. 20, 21.
9 Greengrass, The Longman Companion.
10 Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Image Books, 1992). There is some uncertainty whether Luther actually uttered the "here I stand" portion of this phrase or whether it was inserted by a later editor as a sort of summary statement.
11 Ibid., p. 204.
12 Charles V finessed the question of the pope's authority in his initial papal condemnation by insisting that the hearing at Worms was not to revisit or reopen the question of heresy, but rather to merely establish whether Luther was the author of all the books attributed to him, and to determine if he was truly recalcitrant.
13 Ibid., pp. 227-229.
14 Greengrass, The Longman Companion to the European Reformation, p. 57.
15 John Dillenberger (editor), Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1961), pp. 406-417.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid., pp. 407, 408.
18 Ibid., p. 409.
19 Ibid., p. 411.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid., p. 383.
22 Luther had a personal interest in the argument, as at the time certain civil rulers were banning the sale of his German-language translation of the New Testament.
23 Ibid., p. 389. Quentin Skinner, in his history of political thought during the period of the Reformation, seems to misconstrue Luther's statements in his Address to make him say that Luther subordinated the church in all matters, secular and spiritual, to the civil ruler. He makes Luther's position effectively an Erastian one. It would seem to be a case of Skinner reading back into Luther's earlier views some of Luther's later modified views and Lutheranism's later practices. In my view, Skinner does not take into account sufficiently the development of Luther's thought, and the different views held by Melanchthon and later Lutherans, as discussed more fully later in this paper. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).
24 Ibid., p. 388.
25 Ibid., p. 414.
26 Ibid., p. 368.
27 Ibid., p. 369.
28 Ibid., p. 372.
29 Hans J. Hillerbrand (ed.), The Protestant Reformation (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 35, 36.

Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.